Sick Building Syndrome

Pollution and the depletion of the ozone layer is a constant focus of news. Fortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency says we’re making progress in reducing the six key pollutants in our air, including carbon monoxide, lead, and ozone. The bad news is that while the outside air is improving, the air we breathe indoors may be getting worse.
Workers have fallen sick in buildings ranging from libraries and hospitals to offices, and some of them say poor indoor air is to blame. Complaints are especially common in newer, energy-efficient buildings where windows are sealed shut and fresh air is scarce. Workers suffering building-related illnesses cost business billions each year in lost productivity, sending many companies on a desperate search for answers.
Sick building syndrome (SBS) describes a range of symptoms thought to be linked to spending time in a certain building, most often a workplace, but no specific cause can be found.
The symptoms of SBS may include:
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Nausea (feeling sick)
  • Aches and pains
  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • Poor concentration
  • Shortness of breath or chest tightness
  • Eye and throat irritation
  • Irritated, blocked or runny nose
  • Skin irritation (skin rashes, dry itchy skin)

People with sick building syndrome usually don’t have any disease that a doctor can detect, but their suffering is undeniable. In some cases, the symptoms are so severe that a person can no longer work at the building in question.

Sick building syndrome has become more common than all building-related diseases combined, but so far familiarity hasn’t led to understanding. Nobody knows for sure why so many people are getting sick: Is it really the air, or is it something else?

Some researchers have speculated that sick building syndrome is related to the energy crisis of the 1970s, which resulted in highly insulated “tight buildings” and a lowering of ventilation standards to 5 cubic feet of outdoor air per person per minute.

Some reports of sick building syndrome have been linked to another great epidemic of our times – job stress. Repetitive tasks, poor work relationships, and feelings of helplessness can all sap workers’ health as well as their enthusiasm. Anybody who spends all day doing tedious work and sparring with bosses and coworkers is bound to feel terrible, fumes or no fumes.

Whether the main problem is stress or bad air, employers have to realize their employees are suffering real symptoms – and sick employees are never good for business. The most common intervention is better ventilation – both the amount of fresh air allowed to enter and the volume that’s being circulated.

Employees can do their part as well. The Environmental Protection Agency has these tips to help keep the air in your workplace as fresh as possible:

  • Don’t block air vents or grilles.
  • If you must smoke, do it outside and far away from the fresh air intake ducts, and comply with your company’s smoking policy.
  • Take care of your office plants – dusty, dying plants don’t do anything for the air quality in your office, and over-watered plants can develop mold.
  • Get rid of garbage promptly to prevent odors and biological contamination.
  • Store food properly. Keep perishable food in the refrigerator, and clean the refrigerator out frequently to prevent odors and mold.
  • Keep eating areas clean to avoid attracting pests. (Cockroaches have been linked to respiratory problems – according to the EPA, certain proteins in cockroach droppings and saliva can cause allergic reactions or trigger asthma symptoms).

And Employers too can do their part by getting the HVAC system cleaned regularly and optimally. This will not only reduce the ailments but also increase productivity.

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